Poetry Book Review: Strange Grace by Phoebe MacAdams

In Strange Grace Phoebe MacAdams Whispers an Invocation and We Find Connection in the Commonplace
by Sanora Bartels

Phoebe MacAdams’ latest book of poetry released by Cahuenga Press, Strange Grace begins with an Introduction and the piece Prayer:

Behind the eyes
is a pathway of voices,
the old ones murmuring and humming.
….
come to me in the commonplace
in the ordinary come to me.

It is an invocation to the voice of poetry and it asks only for the ability to name what is seen. The strength of Phoebe MacAdams’ writing is the stripped down simplicity. The first section of the book is titled Los Angeles and MacAdams immediately takes us into her Los Angeles with Walking the Arroyo:

Natural: what we can count on to be here,
what loves this difficult place.

Fifteen minutes from downtown Los Angeles
is a meadow
and sometimes I walk there.

But this work isn’t just about Los Angeles and its pockets of green – it’s about learning to live with both the beauty and the knowledge that the beauty is not only rare and hidden, but ephemeral.

All Hallows is most effective in evoking the balance:

Amid the beauty of flowers
blooming in winter,
we get older
in the Southern California way:
warm November days,
cool nights.

Flowers and death hold hands
in the season of souls;
during Dias de los Muertos
the arms of death are full of flowers,
every skeleton offers a marigold.

As I read the poetry, I became the poet in her world – moving through her days – shifting consciousness in order to step out of her own way to name what is seen in the physical world and at the same moment opening to the idea that she is merely a vessel for the lines that come. Stainless Waiting is one of my favorite pieces because it captures the fear and anticipation we feel as writers – fear that we won’t be able to adequately express a moment of transcendence, that is, seeing totality in brief windows of space and time and anticipation of the words we may receive and then hold out to a listening ear:

not always but sometimes I do despair.
sometimes a deep unworthiness,
inside is a stainless waiting.

The second section of the book, Two Poems takes us out of Los Angeles and into the coastal mountains that are only a few hours drive away. The first tells of devastating fires that swept through Ojai (and other communities) in 1985. These fires are too common in Southern California and autumn rarely passes without their mark. The Wheeler Fire, Ojai 1985 is a powerful piece but in keeping with where MacAdams is leading us, the following poem Ode to Kirk Creek gives what the coastal camp sites offer us, the time and ability to reflect on the healing effect of nature, a rejuvenation of hope, the connection we feel in a world without concrete intersections. MacAdams lists all that she leaves behind in an often challenging world of teaching for LAUSD and then sifts through the frustration to find the:

student’s expression as she looks at the dolphins and the water
around our small boat in Catalina and says:
”Water, water, everywhere and not a drop to drink!
I get it, Miss!”

She keeps

the sight of students sliding happily
into the water of Clear Creek, laughing.

In Ode she is on her own quiet getaway but the piece makes it obvious that this is a secret she is willing to share.

Some mad artist has been here again, making his
anonymous sculptures
and then disappearing up the Coast.

Praises for creativity everywhere and for the otters
playing in the kelp.

In the third section of the book A Day Book: 3.13.05 – 7.11.06 MacAdams moves from noting exterior to what lies within. Nature appears in memory and in the solace of single blooms. She writes of loss – first of poets passing, most notably Robert Creeley, who taught us how to live as a poet in the world of family and friends and then the personal loss of her mother.

These are the most effective pieces in the book. They marry the ability to name what is seen in the first section and what we keep in the second section with our interior dialogue – the mind that claims to want only peace but hums in a litany of whys and what ifs. MacAdams quiets the mind in small focused stanzas – she is present, aware and very much in the “now” of this moment on March 13, 2005

My husband and I did laundry,
discussed our students,
contemplated sex
and dinner, chicken with artichokes.
These small warm days move forward
a poem at a time.

This is the world of routine that death enters, sliding in its slippers of loss and things gone missing. August 16, 2005

Into the dumpster
went the heartbreak of mom’s lipsticks
worn flat with use,
sea shells on gold cords,
pictures of mermaids and relatives…

Ghosts are close to me now;
we speak often
in the mysterious tones
of the recently deceased.
I reach for them with my ears.

MacAdams allows us to read her poetic journal of moving through the usual days, the irritation of making a living as a teacher unsupported by a school district, the obligations of being a good neighbor and all the while underneath beats an orphaned heart. March 10, 2006

there is a tree in midwinter
late at night I remember it.
there is rain on the branch of my mind,
and the weather is dark and bleak.
I am alone with a black sky.
and the memory of a branch.

This piece of memory is sandwiched between the details of life lived, counted in observation and continued attention. When speaking earlier of the poets who had passed away MacAdams wrote May 6, 2005

poetry insists on
itself, on me, its
discipline weaves
me into my life
into the world of
spirit; the voices say
we are not alone, they
whisper from the deep

This is what I take from Strange Grace, a connection to this city and its pockets of life, a recognition of its inhabitants (human and otherwise) and their voices that murmur an invocation – ”come to me in the commonplace”.

You can purchase Strange Grace at http://www. CahuengaPress.com.

If you purchase the book, I would love to know what you think, so please send an email to sanora@lawritersgroup.com.

 

 

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